Hermeneutics

Covenants: Clarity, Ambiguity, and Faith (Part 3)

Read part 1 and part 2.

In the Bible there is always a correspondence between God’s words and His actions. You see it in the Creation narratives: “God said…and it was so.” You see it in the gospel: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” You see it in such mundane places as the curing of Naaman, or Jesus’ healing of Jairus’s daughter. When God says He is going to do something, you can bank on it. While there are places where God relents on judgment (especially after intercession), our faith depends upon the fixity of His meaning. God will do what He says He will do.

This is important on two fronts: first because God must be as good as His word or His character is in question. God’s attributes of veracity and immutability stand behind His promises. The second reason God must mean what He says is because God requires faith from us. Faith must “know” what it is that is to be believed. Faith cannot thrive where ambiguity is let in. Faith has to be able to separate truth from error, or we are wasting our time warning people against error. If the meaning is uncertain, doubt has a foothold.

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Covenants: Clarity, Ambiguity, and Faith (Part 2)

Read part 1.

The subject of this article is how covenants clarify and underline specific terms about certain important (indeed, central) theological topics. If we all spoke the truth and we all could hear it unimpeded by sin’s effects, there would be no need of covenants. Covenants presuppose subjects (at least one) who have a propensity to diverge from an important truth. (It is for this reason that any pre-fall covenants, which are exegetically weak and empty in the first place, seem superfluous).

Covenants also assume the parties to the covenant (at the bare minimum) understand and acknowledge the terms of the covenant.

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Covenants: Clarity, Ambiguity, and Faith (Part 1)

Why make a covenant?

In Genesis 21 is an episode where a Philistine leader, Abimelech, comes to Abraham and wants him to “swear…that you will not deal falsely with me, with my offspring, or with my posterity…” (21:23). Abraham consented, but there was strife over a well which had been seized by Abimelech’s servants (21:25-26). To make sure there was understanding on both sides Abraham and Abimelech entered into a covenant (21:27, 32). In particular the point at issue was the well. Abimelech was to take seven ewes from Abraham as a witness that Abraham had dug the well (21:30). The place where the two made the oath was named “Beersheba,” which means something like “the well of the oath of seven.” The covenant clarified whose well it was and emphasized in the oath and exchange of the lambs that both parties understood exactly what the oath meant. The oath obligated the parties (particularly Abimelech, the recipient of the “witness”) to stand by the terms of the covenant.

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The Book of Revelation is Not Apocalyptic Literature

It may seem odd to suggest that the book entitled Apocalupsis in Greek does not belong to the genre of literature commonly referred to as apocalyptic; nonetheless that is my suggestion here. The term employed in the title of the book denotes a revelation or disclosure.1 While this particular revealing or disclosing describes a broad swathe of eschatological events, it is not its own literary genre.

Apocalyptic as a genre is described as “characteristically pseudonymous; it takes narrative form, employs esoteric language, expresses a pessimistic view of the present, and treats the final events as imminent.”2 Henry Barclay Swete (Cambridge), even while arguing that Revelation is apocalyptic literature, admits that the book differs from that genre in that the book of Revelation (1) is not pseudepigraphic, (2) it engages a specific audience (seven churches), (3) has a significant church focus, rather than a purely Israel nation-centered focus, and (4) includes notes of insight and foresight that are more indicative of inspiration than is found in earlier extra-biblical apocalyptic literature.3

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Languages and Your English Bible

Many Christians are wrongly intimidated by the fact that they do not understand the original languages of the Bible. Those supposedly “in the know” make assertions that imply their superior status in understanding of Scripture because of their linguistic skills.

In reality, proper interpretation is more often about maintaining an open mind and avoiding logical fallacies. A believer who knows how to read and think, but doesn’t know the original languages, will be a superior interpreter to one who knows the ancient language but cannot think logically. Some highly educated folks cannot distinguish between correlation and cause, description and prescription, or the difference between partial truths and the whole truth.

The languages can make a difference, but not to the degree that some would imply. Muslims, for example, claim the only way to understand the Koran is to read it in Arabic. Christians, on the other hand, have traditionally not made such a claim. Snobs, by definition, would not make such an admission. Fortunately, most evangelical scholars are not arrogant; they will freely admit that understanding the original languages is helpful (otherwise why learn them?), but not absolutely crucial for every Christian.

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Aphorisms for Thinking about Separation: Command, Intent and Application

Please, consider reading the preceding article before delving into this one. While I’ve tried to make each stand alone, they are linked together.

Aphorism 1: The debate among Bible believing Christians about separation is fundamentally about the how to apply the passages in the Bible commanding separation.

Aphorism 2: All applications of the commands of Scripture are based on a particular context outside the Bible. Therefore unless the context is identical to what was intended by the Bible, an application cannot be as normative as Scripture itself.

Allow me to share an explicit command of Scripture, repeated five times in the New Testament which is patently ignored at least in literal obedience by almost all churches in the United States: “Greet one another with the kiss of love” (ESV, 1 Peter 5:14; cf. 1 Thess. 5:26, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Cor. 16:20, Rom. 16:16).

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Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path, Part 2

This completes the thoughts offered previously (see Part 1).

4. Systematic Theology

Coming now to Systematic Theology, the first thing that must be said is that the pretended stand for a partial system must be summarily dropped. Dispensational Theology (DT) cannot be switched out for the term Dispensational Premillennialism. In point of fact, I make bold to say that the notion of Dispensational Premillennialism is a bit of an odd bird without a full-orbed system to back it up. Most Dispensationalists have been blithely contented to append their eschatology on to the end of another system—most often the Reformed position. But this is a dubious, and, let us admit it, halfsighted maneuver.

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Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path, Part 1

For one reason or another traditional Dispensationalism has been abandoned by all but a relatively few Bible students. The wild success of the Left Behind novels is no sound indicator to the contrary. Two much better indicators which point decisively the other way are the degree of serious attention given to this point of view in most Biblical and Systematic theologies, which is nugatory; and the stunning lack of scholarly works in these areas by Dispensationalists themselves. As to the latter, I believe I could count on one hand the publications of traditional Dispensationalists of the past generation which even attempt to rival the surfeit of such work from covenant theologians. I say it as a friend; Dispensationalism may be likened to an old car pulled to the side of the road with serious transmission problems. And it has been there for a good long while looking like it needs hauling away.

I feel no need to prove this, as any perusal of the volumes of biblical and systematic theology which have been rolling off the shelves for the past 25 years will show that their authors don’t consider Dispensationalism to be much more than a smudge on the edges of the theological map.

This being said, here are some thoughts on five sectors of truth where Dispensational Theology (DT) might be renewed.

1. Self-Understanding: What Are We About?

In many ways, defining oneself by “dispensations” is more restricting than defining oneself under the theological covenants of Covenant Theology (CT). The dispensations of Dispensationalism are in reality blinders which severely attenuate the exciting potential of plain reading of the Bible. They are non-essentials which have been borne aloft for so long that no one has bothered to look up to see how abject they actually are. What do the concepts “innocence,” “conscience,” “government,” “promise,” “law,” “church” (or “grace”), and “kingdom” have in common as theological ideas (other than their obvious adoption by dispensationalists)?

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